The term women’s rights gained popularity in America beginning in 1848, in Seneca, New York, when 300 people signed a declaration calling for an end to discrimination against women. However, in 1866 the 14th Amendment, which was to guarantee the basic rights of all citizens, designated the word citizen to mean “male voter,” thus eliminating women from such protection. But by 1900 every state had passed legislation that allowed married women to own property and keep their own wages. Despite those advancements, history has not been kind to women. In the face of the freedoms women enjoy in modern America, the unfair laws and practices of the past still haunt us, and there are many countries that continue to treat women as lesser human beings. Some people claim that the Bible is one reason women have been treated unfairly. Others point to the Bible as planting the seeds of liberation for women. Let’s consider women’s rights in light of the Bible.
Before looking at what the Bible has to say about social issues, we must always understand the context of a particular passage and the audience to whom it was addressed. The Bible is a collection of books, each inspired by God but written by different authors, in different eras, for different purposes (2 Peter 1:21; 2 Timothy 3:16). For example, God’s command to the Israelites to “utterly destroy the Hittites and the Canaanites” (Deuteronomy 10:17) was not written to 21st-century Christians. We cannot act on that command; it was not intended for us. Instead, we learn from it and seek to understand God’s purposes in it. Likewise, some Old Testament elements that sound to our Western ears as though God disrespects women need to be considered in light of the culture of the Near East in 4000 BC.
What we know from Scripture is that God created woman as a complement and a gift to man (Genesis 2:18, 22). She is to be treasured, protected, and selflessly served the way Christ loves and serves His church (Ephesians 5:25–30; 1 Peter 3:7). But fallen man, acting according to his sinful flesh, perverts what God creates. Over time, God’s ideal for the woman was shattered, and she became little more than a sexual object, baby-bearer, and slave to the man. This was not God’s plan, just as war, disease, and suffering were not His plan. But God allows humankind free will to choose whether to honor His commands or defy them; however, consequences come with either choice. One consequence that resulted from man’s misuse of the woman God gave him is that one-half of His image (Genesis 1:27) has been abused, subjugated, disrespected, and violated throughout history.
When God gave the Law to the Israelites (Exodus 24:12), He worked within the social structure they already knew. Ancient civilizations were often violent, idolatrous, superstitious, and evil (Genesis 6:5–6). God called out a people and began to teach them about Himself, help them separate themselves from the pagan nations around them, and show them a better way to live (Jeremiah 32:38–39). One aspect of His Law elevated the status of women and children to new heights. God worked within their social structure to ensure “women’s rights”; that is, in the Law women were protected, given fair treatment, and provided for so that no woman could be used and then discarded as was the practice in the pagan nations. God implemented specific laws to protect widows, orphans, and single women without male providers (Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 27:19; Joshua 17:3–4).
The problem with the term women’s rights is that it implies that certain groups can demand “rights” that God did not give them. Less noble inclusions usually piggyback on the benign phrase. For example, demand for “women’s rights” is usually equated with the pro-choice agenda. Activists maintain that part of a woman’s “right” is sovereignty over her own body, even if that body is housing a separate human being. But we cannot create our own “rights.” We have the right to life because God gave it to us. We have the right to avoid danger and abuse whenever possible because our bodies are God’s temple (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). We have the right to choose whether or not to obey God—and the right to receive the consequences of that choice. But we do not have the “right” to infringe upon any rights belonging to someone else.
The following is a list of rights God gave women:
1. A woman has the right to be treated as a woman the way God designed her. In other words, no one has the “right” to force a woman to behave as a man and defy her God-given gender. God placed beauty and grace in the female soul different from the characteristics He gave men (Deuteronomy 22:5). A woman who cannot accept her design as a female needs to be loved, counseled, and shown what it truly means to be a woman. Lesbianism and gender-reassignment surgeries are not solutions God endorses.
2. A woman has the right to nurture and protect her own baby growing inside her body. No one has the right to force a woman to abort her child, and, by the same token, no woman has the right to force her baby’s death (Psalm 139:13).
3. A woman has the right to flourish and grow within the boundaries God created for her, just as men do. Men do not have the right to inhibit that growth and freedom, as has been done in the past and is still practiced in many parts of the world (Colossians 3:19).
4. A woman has the right to fair treatment because women are “joint heirs of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7). This includes equal opportunities to own property (Proverbs 31:16), receive an education, make personal decisions for herself, receive equal pay for equal work (Deuteronomy 24:17), and marry or not marry as she chooses (Numbers 36:6).
5. A woman has the right to serve the Lord according to her gifts and within the boundaries God set for His church (Titus 2:3–5; 1 Timothy 3:11).
6. A woman has the right to compete on an equal level with a man for opportunities not related to gender. However, to expect business and institutions to alter their standards so that women have a better chance is not equality at all. (For example, gender may prohibit a 4'6," 110-lb. woman from being hired for a heavy construction job.) Gender should never be a consideration for college admissions, medical school, or the business world because a woman’s feminine qualities in no way affect her performance.
7. A woman has a right to everything a man claims as his right, while honoring the God-given distinctions between the sexes (Galatians 3:28). Neither gender nor race should ever be used as an excuse to oppress or exclude a person from anything God allows.
When the phrase women’s rights agrees with the rights God instituted when He designed the woman, then the Bible fully supports those rights. When that term is hijacked to include evil that God never endorsed, then those so-called “rights” are not rights at all.